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Judge delays trial after blaming newspaper for tainting jury pool

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  1. Court Access

    NMU         SOUTH CAROLINA         Secret Courts         Dec 15, 2000    

Judge delays trial after blaming newspaper for tainting jury pool

  • A judge found that preserving a criminal defendants’ right to a fair trial justifies delaying jury selection after a newspaper ran an article about the murder in advance of the trial.

Judge Jackson Gregory in Beaufort County, S.C., decided to delay a murder trial because he feared potential jurors would be prejudiced by a newspaper article in The Beaufort Gazette.

The trial of Robert Fields and Derrick Williams, for the alleged murder of Brian Williams, was scheduled to begin Dec. 11. However, Gregory postponed it after a story, with the headline “Murder trial begins Monday in Beaufort,” contained information about the defendants’ confessions, which would not be admitted during the trial. The judge questioned the jury pool to determine whether anyone had seen the story. One-third of the potential jurors said they read the story.

Gregory then told the jury pool, “After speaking with some of you who have read the article, and because of the sensitivity of the items contained in it, and because it was a headline in the Beaufort Gazette, I feel the defendants cannot get a fair trial, because it contained evidence that won’t be admitted during the trial.”

Defense lawyers argued that an impartial jury could still be selected because not all potential jurors had read the article. Gregory, however, rejected the argument, finding that “the standard is whether or not the court feels they can be impartial.”

The judge set a new date for the trial and has not informed the media of the start date.

In a Dec. 13 editorial, The Beaufort Gazette criticized Gregory’s decision, arguing that reporting factual information about a trial is a fundamental right under the First Amendment. The newspaper also stated the media acts as a surrogate for the public, and that this feature of American justice “sets U.S. courts apart from other countries where people are tried in a kangaroo court and hauled out back and shot in the head.”

“Using Judge Gregory’s thinking, O.J. Simpson couldn’t have been tried in any one of the 3,142 counties in the United States,” the editorial read.

(South Carolina v. Fields) AG

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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